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Population movement and the socio-economic complexion of communities

This study uses the migration data of the 2001 Census of population to find out whether 27 of the largest cities and city regions attract the talented people that they need to prosper.

Written by:
Tony Champion, Mike Coombes, Simon Raybould and Colin Wymer
Date published:

Britain’s most and least successful cities are identified, and there is also a detailed look at the population movement within the city regions of London, Birmingham and Bristol. Key points include:

  • Cities losing population included all the large conurbations plus most small cities in the North and West.
  • London stood out in attracting many ‘higher managerial and professional’ people, and especially recent graduates.
  • Cities making strong gains from longer-distance movement mostly had growing local job numbers, plus some key quality of life characteristics.
  • Cities attracting few longer-distance migrants also lose many migrants more locally, threatening their tax base and housing markets.


Recent claims of an ‘urban renaissance’ have suggested that cities are magnets for younger and better-qualified people who can sustain urban economic growth and community development. This study by Newcastle University analysed population movement over the year prior to the 2001 Census to discover whether 27 large British cities attracted more people from elsewhere in the country than they lost. It also looked in more detail at population movement within three city regions. The study found that:

  • Almost half the 27 cities gained population as a result of moves within the UK in the 2000-01 period, but cities that lost population included all of the largest half-dozen British cities and many of the smaller cities outside England’s southern and eastern regions.
  • London saw many more higher managerial and professional people arriving than leaving, but most cities were less successful at attracting and/or keeping this key group than movers in general.
  • Nine of the 27 cities saw a net gain of people through longer-distance exchanges of movers, and ten received more people from the rest of their city regions than they lost.
  • Cities making the strongest gains from longer-distance movement were characterised by local job growth, more graduates, higher life expectancy and lower religious adherence.
  • Cities suffering the highest losses to the rest of their own city region tended to be those that were also least attractive for longer-distance moves. Such population loss could threaten these cities’ tax base, and housing market weakness become a risk. Population turnover was generally greater in the stronger cities.
  • Students moving longer distances from home to university boosted 22 of the 27 cities’ populations. Most provincial cities appeared to lose out from the moves of recent graduates, weakening their growth potential.
  • A more detailed analysis of three city regions (London, Birmingham and Bristol) showed that population movement was marginally reinforcing the social differences among localities.
  • The researchers conclude that the continuing focus of UK population movement patterns on London – especially for younger and highly skilled people – remains a challenge for policy, adding to the labour-market and housing-market pressures there while denuding other parts of the country of talent.


As in other advanced countries, British cities declined in the latter twentieth century, but an ‘urban renaissance’ is now widely claimed. De-industrialisation has run its course, while there is growth in finance and other knowledge-based industries that favour cities. Regeneration schemes and image promotion have contributed to shifts in attitudes to cities as places to live. Yet the evidence for this recovery is unclear. Some cities still seem to be struggling, and many are losing residents to surrounding areas or further afield. If this exodus is mainly of higher-income people, then cities’ human and social capital is threatened. At the same time, the gulf between rich and poor areas in the residential kaleidoscope of cities may be widening.

This study used the most detailed Census information ever on population movement to assess the experience of larger cities in Britain at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The focus was on 27 of Britain’s largest urban areas, together with their wider city regions (see ‘About the project’). The analyses covered people who moved between each city and the rest of the UK in the 12 months before the Census. Movers were categorised by age and by socio-economic status.


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